The University of Western Ontario and the Royal Society of Canada recently hosted current American Ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, and former Canadian Ambassador to the US, Allan Gotlieb, as keynote speakers for a forum of animated discussion with students, researchers and some of the country’s leading political commentators about Canada-US often contentious relations. Held at Western on January 25, 2006, the forum provided approximately 800 guests from the university community, the London area and the RSC with an opportunity to question panelists directly and hear views about how the sensitive and important relationship between our neighboring countries has been, and should be, managed. Comments Wilkins made during the forum relating to Arctic sovereignty drew rebuke from Prime Minister Stephen Harper the following day, resulting in substantial media coverage of the related issues.
Timing and topic could not have been much better, just two days after Canadian voters chose Stephen Harper as their new prime minister and the Conservatives to be their federal government. Every issue took on special significance, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, Arctic sovereignty, anti-Americanism, defence and border security, gun violence and political rhetoric.
President George Bush earlier that day had telephoned Harper and had “a very cordial and friendly conversation with him,” Wilkins said. The ambassador also congratulated Harper and said the US government looks forward to working with the newly-elected prime minister and government on a broad range of bilateral and global issues as partners on the world stage.
During the election campaign, the ambassador became front-page news when he chided Prime Minister Paul Martin and the Liberals for statements about the United States and the Bush administration. Noting during the public forum that he had no intention of becoming the next day’s headlines, Wilkins said that we spend too much time talking about “the issues that divide” rather than the “overwhelming majority of commonalities” we share.
“I know we have areas of disagreement, but I don’t believe they define our relationship. My greatest aspiration as long as I remain ambassador is to strengthen the ties that bind our two countries,” Wilkins said. “For generations, Canadians and Americans have worked together to weave those ties out of threads of respect and trust, and thanks to the work of folks like former Ambassador Gotlieb, those ties are strong.”
The forum was co-sponsored by the University of Western Ontario, Research Western, the Centre for American Studies at Western and The Royal Society of Canada. Moderator Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s weekly foreign affairs series Diplomatic Immunity and co-host of Studio 2, had a few questions, as did members of the capacity audience in Conron Hall. Panelists were: Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail columnist; Andrew Cohen, formerly of The Globe and Mail, now an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University and Paul Berton, Editor-in-Chief of The London Free Press. Wilkins and Gotlieb each gave a short speech prior to fielding questions.